The National Interest Online, February 26, 2009 - As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Egypt next week to participate in an international donors' conference for Gaza, she would do well to be mindful of what she can and cannot accomplish there. Rebuilding Gaza after the three-week Israeli military assault is a humanitarian necessity, and Clinton should take the lead in order to demonstrate concern for Palestinians. The United States reportedly will promise some $900 million in assistance, to be channeled through NGOs and the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas.
But Clinton should not succumb to the illusion, whether in her public statements or private policy deliberations, that one can use economic assistance to solve political problems. Specifically, Clinton should be clear about two issues: economic assistance cannot create prosperity in Gaza—or the West Bank, for that matter—under current conditions, and economic assistance cannot reverse the ascendancy of Hamas and deterioration in public support for the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.
Our skepticism about aid without political progress is based on hard experience. This Gaza reconstruction conference is only the latest of more than a dozen such events to mobilize international assistance for Palestinians. Since 1994, taxpayers in the United States, Europe and other countries have contributed some $14 billion to various programs in order to demonstrate to Palestinians that their lives will improve under a moderate leadership that cooperates with Israel. Those efforts pay off only when there is political and diplomatic momentum.
When that diplomacy collapses, the fruits of assistance do not merely collapse—they are targeted. In Gaza, the cycle of construction and destruction is a Sisyphean process: a port, an airport, a power plant and a set of government buildings have been built with international funds, and then bombed when war broke out, first in 2001 and again last month.
If we now step in again to rebuild without an accompanying political strategy, we may find ourselves doing the exact same thing a year or two down the road. Aid money can mitigate some of the worst effects of the conflict, but it can do no more as long as the conflict continues. Even in the absence of active fighting, there is—in the words of an International Crisis Group report released in July 2008—a “natural ceiling” to any genuine and sustainable economic recovery....
Nathan J. Brown directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and is a nonresident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Michele Dunne is a senior associate.